Toyota’s RAV4 goes back to its 4x4 roots

First drive: The new crossover might be all-hybrid, but it’s surprisingly rugged if you go for the AWD version

The new RAV4 is an intriguing proposition. A car that combines surprising levels of ruggedness, with forward-looking hybrid tech, and big-saloon-style refinement and comfort on a motorway run.

Make: Toyota

Model: RAV4

Year: 2019

Fuel: Hybrid

Date Reviewed: January 16, 2019

Wed, Jan 16, 2019, 18:19

   

The hill, as we approach it, is steep enough to cause us to pause for a moment. Better by far to take a good run at this, to gather momentum before the climb begins, especially with the greasy-brown mud strewn everywhere, just waiting to give any one of our tyres a dose of spin cycle.

Emboldened, we each take a breath and then the accelerator is mashed, hard to the floor, and in a flurry of four-wheel drive traction and stuttering stability control, we’re off. The surface beneath us squelches and squishes, and clods of wet earth spiral into the air before falling back with a splat. And then, we’re there. At the crest of the hill, with far less drama than might have been expected. In a Toyota RAV4.

It became rather fashionable to deride the RAV4 as a ‘soft-roader’ - a school run special that only looked like a 4x4, and one that would never see a blade of grass under its pristine alloys. That’s rather to forget that the original 1994 model, whose name is an acronym of Recreational Activity Vehicle 4-Wheel Drive, was actually pretty capable in the muck, not least because it was light and, in short-wheelbase form, agile.

For this generation, Toyota wanted to make something that was far more overtly a 4x4

Later versions rather toned all that down, to the point where even Toyota admits that the last-generation model was closer to being a tall estate or a mutated MPV than a true SUV. So for this generation, Toyota wanted to make something that was far more overtly a 4x4.

To do so, the RAV’s chief engineer, Yoshikazu Saeki, told The Irish Times that he didn’t bother looking at what the competition was doing. “I looked at our rivals” he said, “But if I focus on our competitors, I focus on their ideas, not on developing our own ideas. I wanted to see whether the customers would be proud to own their RAV4. If you think of it in social media terms, we want them to love it, not just to like it.”

Sharp edges

Thanks to the current global clamour for SUVs and 4x4s, that meant giving the new RAV4 a few more sharp edges and straight lines, eschewing the general trend towards soft, round, shapes seen in previous models. You can judge for yourself from the myriad images of the car if Saeki-san has been successful, but one thing is sure - this is a RAV that looks far more aggressively like an off-roader than any of its predecessors.

At the side and from the back there are distinct overtones of the Jeep Cherokee and Compass (check out those very, very square wheelarches) while the front end seems to scowl at the road with the face of an angry Kabuki mask. It’s arguably rather messy, and it’s certainly hugely colour sensitive, but it does, I find, start to grow on you after a while.

The cabin is rather more restrained and conventional, and that’s probably a good thing. It’s also far less stylish than that of its smaller brother, the C-HR crossover
The cabin is rather more restrained and conventional, and that’s probably a good thing. It’s also far less stylish than that of its smaller brother, the C-HR crossover

The cabin is rather more restrained and conventional, and that’s probably a good thing. It’s also far less stylish than that of its smaller brother, the C-HR crossover, which cleaves closer to Lexus styling and quality levels. There’s nothing wrong with the quality levels in the new RAV (nor the comfort - it has great seats) but the overall effect is plainer and simpler, and actually slightly closer to what you’d find in the big, beefy Land Cruiser. That, says Saeki-san, is the RAV4’s mission in life - to more effectively fill the gap in Toyota’s range between the C-HR and the ‘Cruiser.

It rides on the same TNGA (Toyota New Generation Architecture) as the new Corolla, Prius, and indeed the C-HR. Thanks to the flexibility that brings, Toyota’s engineers have been able to lower the whole car by 10mm, while simultaneously raising the ride height by 11mm for better rough-ground clearance. The wheelbase stretches by 30mm (to the betterment of rear seats space) and the boot is bigger too, at 580-litres up to the luggage cover.

Hybrid-only

It is also, of course, now only sold as a hybrid. Some European markets, and the US, will get the option of a conventional petrol engine, but for us it’s hybrid all the way. The system is a development of that used in the old RAV4 Hybrid and the new Camry and Lexus ES. It uses a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, combined with electric motors (one for the front-wheel drive version, two for the four-wheel drive version) and develops either 218hp (for the front-driver) or 222hp (for the AWD model).

Thanks to the current global clamour for SUVs and 4x4s, that meant giving the new RAV4 a few more sharp edges and straight lines, eschewing the general trend towards soft, round, shapes seen in previous models
Thanks to the current global clamour for SUVs and 4x4s, that meant giving the new RAV4 a few more sharp edges and straight lines, eschewing the general trend towards soft, round, shapes seen in previous models

The difference between the two may be just 4hp on paper, but on the road these are very different cars, and the ball is firmly in the AWD RAV4’s court. The front-wheel drive RAV lurches into squealy understeer far too easily and far too clumsily, and generally feels pretty unhappy unless you’re just gently cruising on a main road or ambling around town. OK, so that’s precisely the daily duty that most of these cars will actually face, but the AWD’s repertoire is so much wider, and it’s much the better car.

The extra oomph from having a second electric motor (which powers only the rear-wheels) means you need to spend less time letting the engine rev its head off to build speed (the old bugbear of the CVT gearbox remains, but it’s less intrusive than it used to be) and the ability to send power to the rear of the car really sharpens up the handling. It turns a very ordinary car, in dynamic terms, into something a little more enjoyable.

Proper off-roader

Plus it can genuinely off-road. I doubt that it would keep up with, say, a Jeep Cherokee in the mud, but then it’s far cheaper than the Jeep and rather more refined on road, and we were genuinely and pleasingly surprised with how easily the RAV dispatched the rocky, dusty, occasionally muddy farm track along which we drove it. As always, hardly any owner will ever use that capability, but it’s nice to know that it’s there, in extremis.

The new RAV4 is likely to be a somewhat divisive car. If that OTT styling doesn’t put you off, then the lack of a diesel option might (although Toyota says it’s had no adverse reactions as yet). It is rather an intriguing one, though. A car that combines surprising levels of ruggedness, with forward-looking hybrid tech, and big-saloon-style refinement and comfort on a motorway run. It may not, quite, be the mould-breaker that its 25-year old predecessor was, but it successfully continues Toyota’s quest to fulfil its chairman’s recent order of “no more boring cars.”

The lowdown: Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Luna Sport AWD

Price: €TBC as tested; RAV4 starts at €35,900;
Power: 222bhp
Torque: 221Nm (engine); 202Nm (front electric motor); 121Nm (rear electric motor).
0-100kmh: 8.4sec.
Top speed: 180km/h.
Claimed economy: 50.4mpg (5.6 litres/100km).
CO2 emissions: 103g/km.
Motor tax: €190.
Verdict: A much more characterful RAV than before. Divisive, perhaps, but likeable.
Our rating: 4/5